Hard-up Tories plead for unpaid helpers

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The Independent Online
THE CONSERVATIVE party, strapped for funds and short of research staff, is to create a "volunteer army" of policy advisers because it cannot afford to hire professional helpers, writes Marie Woolf.

It has been privately approaching business people, and experts on economics, transport and other policy areas who have loose links to the Conservative Party, to beg them to give up their free time.

They want them to provide advice and research support to the Shadow Cabinet, to help it challenge Labour on forthcoming legislation.

Insiders say the opposition front bench is reeling from lack of research support, after 18 years during which it was able to rely on huge teams of civil servants. The party fears it does not have the resources to oppose Labour effectively.

One supporter who was approached for help said: "Basically there is a massive black hole when it comes to research in the Conservative Party. They are trying to assemble teams with team leaders to attack Labour on Bills it is preparing."

The teams will be co-ordinated by the research department at Conservative Central office. The "volunteer army" will include lobbyists with an expertise in a specific field and lawyers. Researchers will not be paid but will be told that they "are playing a big part in the Conservative fightback". The initiative, code-named "Put your Ideas into Action" is to be launched at Conservative Central Office in London this week.

"It is about rounding up a whole load of experts who will work with the Conservative Party", said a party spokesman. "They are people with some expertise and think of themselves as natural Conservatives."

The experts have been assembled by Toby Vincentt, an active party member who is now deputy regional co-ordinator for the greater London region. He is said to have contacted "hundreds" of people, though many have refused because of a possible conflict of interest.

The move follows a massive economy drive by the Tory party, leading to the loss of around 40 jobs at its London headquarters and a moratorium on any expenditure over pounds 250.

The party's finances ran into trouble after the last election when its banker, the Royal Bank of Scotland, refused to extend the ceiling on its pounds 4m overdraft over this year. Archie Norman, chief executive of the Conservative Party, has reportedly ordered key party officials to return their credit cards to save cash.

The move is intended to beef up opposition attempts to catch out ministers on spending commitments and give them a rough ride in forthcoming debates on teachers' pay, changes to disability benefits and nurses' conditions.